Often it’s easier to answer questions about what we don’t want than what we do want, and there is a good reason for that. It’s called the negativity bias. ‘Negativity bias’ refers to our hard-wired tendency to “attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information” (Vaish et al., 2008, p.383).
Why do we have a negativity bias?
We inherited this negativity bias from our ancient ancestors. Being attuned to danger, they were able to remember and therefore avoid environmental threats such as saber-toothed tigers or the path that led to a pit of quicksand. It’s in part thanks to the fact that they developed this negativity bias, we are alive today! The problem is we still have this negativity bias even though in general we don’t have to worry about being eaten by tigers or falling into quick sand.
So instead we worry about how people will judge us or having enough toilet paper even though super markets restocks every day. We ignore facts like while 10,442 caught the coronavirus in the US as of 19 March 2020—of those folks 10,292 have survived! Looking at how many caught the COVID-19, rather than how many survived is our negativity bias at play. (Numbers from WHO.org)
What we now understand…
Understanding that negative experiences are more easily and readily stored in our minds makes it’s easier to see how we often end up with a head full of negative feelings and thoughts. It’s not our fault. Here’s an invitation to be compassionate with ourselves and other instead. Still we don’t want to get rid of our negativity bias entirely. It is still useful. We don’t want to have to stop and think before we jump out of the way of car, right?
This bit of information isn’t an invitation to be reckless; we still need to practice safety habits. But knowing that we have this negativity bias, we can choose to be calm despite the news, panic and fear around us. Can you think of more examples of positive events being drowned out by what we perceive to be negative ones?
How can we counter the negativity bias?
But we if we want to stop being ruled the negativity bias; we need to consciously balance out its effect. Remember it’s both hard-wired and still useful. How do we do that? By focusing on things that make us happy on a regular basis, so we become as accustomed to recognized the good as the bad. That’s why people have gratitude journals or repeat affirmations. Creating moments of conscious awareness helps us regulate our emotions because we focus on what actually happening in the moment. Deep breathing into the belly is also an option because it trigger calming chemicals into our systems. Consistency as in most things is the key to success with any of these.
What can you do regularly to increase your positivity and counter the negativity bias?
Vaish, Amrisha, Tobias Grossmann, and Amanda Woodward. “Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development.” Psychological bulletin 134, no. 3 (2008): 383.